It has been said in a number of mediums–though most of them have not been exactly academic–that you can smell another person’s fear. Though the idea that we can sense when other people are afraid is not at all a new concept and has a firm foundation in cognitive science and the study of human relationships, it is not very commonly held that fear can actually, literally be scented. But this may in fact be the case. In a study that reflects the sometimes whimsical world of psychological research, a team from Germany’s University of Dusseldorf has investigated whether the smell of fear is real or simply a fun way to say that we know when there are frightened people afoot.
The study was carried out in a way that might not seem entirely pleasant. In the name of science, however, a group of students were given cotton pads to place in their armpits before an exam. The same group was also given these pads before exercising on a different occasion. After all the pads had been used and collected, students were asked to smell pairs of pads. The smelling took place while subjects were connected to an MRI scanning system. While subjects could not report any difference between the “test anxiety” and “exercise” pads, their brains showed a significant amount of activity in key areas when smelling the “test anxiety” pads.
The pattern suggests that while we may not overtly experience the smell of fear, our noses have a lot to do with telling us about the mood or state of those around us. Therapists might not want to start sniffing their clients outright, but an openness to the sense of others’ emotions and more serious consideration may prove helpful in understanding just how people feel.
© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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